From Republic.ru, Nov. 23, 2022, https://republic.ru/posts/106206. Condensed text:
Editors’ Note. – The Russian propaganda machine has a hard time keeping up with the rapidly changing reality. It is no easy task convincing Russians that their army is doing great when it is suffering one defeat after another at the hands of the Ukrainian military. Propagandists are beginning to wonder about the prospects of being held accountable once the regime collapses. These are the key takeaways from Republic’s interview with Viktor Denisenko, a propaganda expert and an associate professor at the Vilnius University Faculty of Communication.
* * *
‘It’s very difficult to come up with triumphant narratives at the moment.’
Q. – How has Kremlin propaganda changed compared to the early days of the war?
A. – Propaganda can only be effective when it has at least some elements of reality it can draw on. I mean, it needs some facts it can put a spin on; it needs some truth to mix its lies with. But reality right now does not look good for Russia; current facts do not favor Russian propaganda. This is why, as far as I can tell, Russia’s narratives are increasingly alienated from reality. Propagandists are having a hard time telling people that victory is just around the corner and that the goal of denazifying Ukraine will soon be achieved. As some people joke on social media, Russia has adjusted the objectives of its special operation [see Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 9‑13], and instead of denazifying Ukraine, the goal is now to nab a raccoon from the Kherson Zoo.
Q. – Would you say the Russian propaganda machine is flexible enough? Does it adapt to the rapidly changing reality? Or is it too rigid and unable to keep up, making it less effective?
A. – On the whole, the Russian propaganda machine is flexible enough. It has a number of players, who are not linked to each other directly. For example, it has national TV networks on one hand and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s social media trolls on the other.
This makes the propaganda machine flexible. But, in my opinion, even this flexibility is no longer enough. A couple of years back, when COVID‑19 hit, I observed how the Kremlin propaganda responded to new developments, promptly adapting its old narratives to new circumstances. They did it on the fly. But back then, those propagandists had at least some building blocks they could use to create their narratives. You have the pandemic as a global challenge, and different countries are responding differently. Some are doing better; others are doing worse. This gives you some room for creativity. At least you have something you can play with. Today, on the other hand, it is extremely difficult to come up with triumphant narratives. The mobilization campaign is under way [see Vol. 74, No. 38, pp. 3‑6], and even though the authorities claim that it is only a “partial” mobilization, people remember that they were initially promised that there would be no mobilization at all.
Actually, this should result in a major cognitive dissonance, because even elementary logic should tell you that if it’s just a special operation, how come it warrants nationwide mobilization? I mean, if they were to call it war, that would be understandable. But special operations are always carried out by professionals, by special forces. Any person with at least a touch of intelligence should be wondering about these things. . . .
Q. – What makes Russian propaganda so effective? I’m referring in particular to the early days of the war and the period before the war. I mean, propaganda clearly did a good job preparing the Russian people mentally for war. Many people were convinced that this special operation was in a sense necessary. In any case, the Russian propaganda machine turned out to be more effective than the Russian military. Why does it work? Is it because the Kremlin has pumped so much money into it? Or is there another reason?
A. – Money did play a role, but it is not the main reason. This propaganda effort has been going on for years. And it did not start from scratch. In part, it builds on the foundation laid by Soviet propaganda, especially the narrative about NATO being an aggressive military alliance chomping at the bit to attack Russia. When the Russian propaganda machine was resurrected (this happened in the early days of Vladimir Putin’s rule), it was less than a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed. All these stories and ideas were still very much alive in Russian people’s minds. So, it was not that difficult to dust them off and put them back to use.
Russia is an unfree country. Personally, I classify it as an authoritarian regime. Propaganda is an integral part of it, which means it operates nonstop. It has been demonizing Ukraine throughout the last eight years.
This is significant. If every day you keep hearing on TV that a military junta has seized power in Kiev, that nationalists and Banderovites1 are going to the Crimea to kill Russians, and so on and so forth, little by little you fall under that influence. This is not to say that you will accept their narrative immediately and completely. No, perhaps you don’t even care about politics. But they tell you that a junta has come to power in Kiev. Perhaps you don’t even know what the word “junta” means, but you can tell that it’s something bad.
In addition, it is widely believed (at least this was the case until this year) that one of the objectives of Kremlin propaganda is to make people passive, as strange as it may sound. People often say that there is an unwritten contract between the ruling class and the people. The ruling class tells the people, “Here, have some sausage, but stay out of politics. You will have food in the fridge and some entertainment on TV. But anything beyond that is none of your business. If we tell you to vote for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, you just go and do as you’re told.”
And people accepted this social contract – not all of them, of course, but most of them. And it doesn’t mean that they are bad people; no, it’s just more convenient to live like that. . . .
This backfired when the Kremlin declared the mobilization. All of a sudden, the Kremlin needed to motivate people to rise up and go to war. Some people fled Russia, and some obediently went to war, like cattle led to the slaughter. You can find a lot of stories online, but again, what catches my eye in all of them is how passive these people are. They agree to be led away like that. Perhaps they even realize that they are being sent to a war zone and that, given their lack of training, they are not likely to stay alive very long there. And still – they don’t protest. This is what amazes me the most. But that’s precisely because propaganda has taught people to be passive.
Q. – Actually, there have been some reports about mobilized reservists protesting and arguing with their commanders. There was even a video recently of a conscript hitting an officer. He was later arrested for that. It’s not like there are a lot of stories like this one, but still.
A. – Perhaps we will even see a turning point, because it’s hard for us to know how the people thrown into the meat grinder of mobilization feel. But it seems to me that, one way or another, people will probably start thinking about their situation. You start thinking about where you are, where you might be tomorrow and how it all might end.
Many people will weigh their two options – going to war and going to prison – and see that their chances of surviving in prison are much better. So, you have to pick the lesser of two evils.
‘It’s hard for people to accept that they have been living a lie for 20 or 30 years, fooled by smoke and mirrors.’
Q. – How effective is Russian propaganda outside of Russia? A recent poll in Germany revealed that a growing number of Germans think that NATO actually provoked the war in Ukraine.
A. – This is a vast subject, but when it comes to European countries, [unlike Russia] at least I have solid data from my studies I can rely on. There is a kind of “belt” of propaganda immunity stretching across Europe. It consists of the Baltic nations, Poland, and Romania. . . .
But the farther west you go, the worse it gets. The situation in Germany is actually not that bad, as far as I know. I think Slovakia is the worst. Slovaks easily fall for conspiracy theories, and I have some colleagues in Slovakia who are just terrified at how gullible Slovaks are. As experts, they are aware of this problem and speak out about it. But politicians ignore their concerns and the media don’t really talk about these things.
It all makes perfect sense. There are several reasons why people in our region are so wary of Russian propaganda: Russia’s geographical proximity, [the Baltic countries’] extremely negative experience with Russia over the last few centuries, and our pretty good understanding of the context. We have specialists who know Russian well enough to dig deep into Russian propaganda’s narratives.
But if you move further west in Europe, those countries don’t view Russian propaganda as that big of a problem, because Russia is far away and they did not have the same negative experiences with Russia that we did in our history. There are also problems with the quality of their analysis, because most of their experts don’t know Russian well enough, if at all. Of course, they can always study RT materials in English or in German, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. . . .
Q. – Do you think banning propagandist media outlets is an effective way of countering propaganda? Being an expert, do you think this is the right way to tackle this problem?
A. – Generally speaking, I’m against banning anything because of the forbidden fruit effect. At the same time, since Feb. 24, I’ve been in favor of a ban, because, as they say, all’s fair in love and war. Since Russia decided to raise the stakes and engage in overt aggression, we should respond in kind and take decisive action. So, the question we should ask ourselves is, what works best? Which methods are best suited for this situation?
What I’m about to say is nothing new. Perhaps 90% of experts will tell you the same thing: Media literacy is the best cure. Bans are not very effective. . . .
Q. – How much time does it take to educate people about media literacy? I’m asking about Russian people, primarily. Let’s say, the political situation in Russia changes. What do you do with the Russian people to make them less susceptible to propaganda?
A. – Let me start with Lithuania, and then I’ll come to Russia. Like I said earlier, I think Lithuania is one of the countries with the strongest immunity against propaganda. But this doesn’t mean that we’re perfect. In order to reach the required level of media literacy, as I mentioned earlier, you have to make it part of the school curriculum. In other words, we can’t make our society sufficiently literate overnight; this can only happen with the next generation. It may take decades – even with Lithuania.
With Russia, the situation is even more difficult, because before we even start thinking about media literacy, first you have to dismantle all those narratives that propaganda instilled in people’s minds over decades.
Q. – Is it even possible to do that?
A. – The [postwar] history of Nazi Germany tells us that it is possible. Of course, there are some differences, and historical parallels don’t always work 100%. For example, the Hitler regime did not exist that long by historical standards, and the media environment in Nazi Germany was very different from what we have today. It was mostly newspapers and radio in those days.
Today, we have the Internet, which means that even if we see profound democratic changes in Russia and if Russian TV networks, newspapers and radio stations once again become proper media, there will still be online trolls who will keep doing what they’re doing.
How do you dismantle those propaganda narratives? It’s a painful process. To start this purification, Russian people will have to embrace a few truths that will be extremely hard to swallow. For example, that Russia started an aggressive war against Ukraine, a war based on lies and sheer fabrications. Or that Russian troops are invaders, not liberators, and that they have committed war crimes in Ukraine. Or that essentially the entire ideology that the regime was built on, all those narratives are all a big fat lie.
I think that psychologically, it’s very hard for people to accept that they have been living a lie for 20 or 30 years, fooled by smoke and mirrors. . . .
Russia’s official narrative claims that Russia is only defending itself. This is why [the Kremlin] refuses to call it a war. This is why it insists it is only a special operation. People don’t like the idea that they are doing something bad. Even the most terrible people like to come up with excuses for their actions.
So as far as Russia is concerned, everything’s possible, but it will be an extremely painful process. People’s mentality will resist the change.
‘Propagandists don’t feel very confident about their future.’
Q. – There was an interesting situation recently with Russian propagandists. RT either fired or suspended its anchor Anton Krasovsky for saying on air that Ukrainian children should be drowned in a river or burned alive. Why do you think they did it? Does it mean that there are certain boundaries that propagandists are not supposed to cross?
A. – What I’m about to say is just a theory. People at the top of the propaganda system are not idiots. They know how the media world works; they know how to create narratives; they are capable of in-depth analysis. Sometimes, I wonder what I would do if I were in their shoes, especially today. For example, Russia boasted that it had the world’s second most powerful military, but now it turns out it can’t even cope with Ukraine. The war is taking a very heavy toll on Ukraine, but still, Russia does not seem to be able to win this war. So people at the top must be wondering what will happen to them if the Putin regime collapses and they are held accountable for their actions. We don’t know yet what kind of accountability we’re talking about. But it could be anything, starting from something like the Nuremberg Trials (which convicted, among others, Nazi propagandists) to something less dramatic. For example, they may be banned from working in the media or holding certain public offices.
I think these people have these fears somewhere at the back of their heads, and this is why they draw certain boundaries for themselves that they try not to cross. In the context of our European and Christian civilization, if you suggest burning children alive, that’s totally crazy. There is no way you can put a positive spin on it.
Can Kremlin propagandists afford to say something like that? Yes, they can, but only if they have absolute confidence in their future. And I don’t think they feel very confident about their future right now. One day, the regime will collapse, and when that finally happens, my prediction is that many propagandists will say, “You saw how we circulated narratives that were totally absurd. You didn’t think we really meant it, did you? We did it on purpose – because we didn’t want people to believe our propaganda. This was our way of sabotaging this oppressive regime. This was the only way we could resist it. You didn’t think for one second that we really meant it when we reported that Ukrainian nationalists crucified a little Russian boy, did you? Because it’s crazy, it’s just absurd.” I think this is how many propagandists will try to wiggle their way out of this.
Q. – Accountability for propagandists, including criminal prosecution, is a very important subject. First of all, do you think they should be held accountable? What should this accountability look like? And how should it be administered? I’m trying to envision a situation where, let’s say, [pro-Kremlin television personalities] Vladimir Solovyov or Margarita Simonyan face trial. I guess many people would love to see this, but you’re right, these people are not idiots, and they are careful enough not to incriminate themselves by engaging in hate speech or anything like that. Given the context, their tone and their emotion, their words are definitely perceived as advocating an aggressive war. But it would be hard to find a clearly incriminating quote for the court – apart from what Krasovsky said. Do you think it is still possible to prosecute these people? If you were summoned as an expert to testify in court, what would you say?
A. – If I am summoned to testify in court as a communications expert, I would say that there should be accountability, because the Kremlin propaganda is responsible for this war of aggression. It is part of this war. Propaganda is a part of war. Modern warfare is basically impossible without information warfare.
We can say they are indirectly responsible. If a soldier raped a woman in Bucha, he committed a crime directly. With propagandists, we can say their role was that of enablers. But enablers can also be prosecuted for aiding and abetting criminals. So, I think it should be possible to prosecute propagandists. This is based on the precedent of the Nuremberg Trials, which the Kremlin propagandists like to mention every now and then. . . .
Q. – We have been talking about ways to counter propaganda. But where do you draw a line between propagandists and journalists? Of course, some cases are clear-cut. I don’t think anybody would describe Margarita or Vladimir Solovyov as a journalist. They are clearly propagandists. But some opposition leaders in Russia say that even [former Ekho Moskvy editor in chief] Aleksei Venediktov is a propagandist. They say this is a smarter variety of propaganda, but he is still a propagandist working for the Kremlin. Or let’s take the recent situation with my colleagues from Dozhd [Rain] TV, currently working in Latvia. When they first came to Latvia, locals criticized them saying they were Russian propagandists disguised as liberal journalists. So, how do we make sure we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater? Where do we draw the line?
A. – You have mentioned emotional context, and the atmosphere indeed is very tense and emotional, both in Latvia and here in Lithuania. How do we draw the line? I would say it is up to experts to do this. There are certain journalistic standards. For example, you have to present different views in your reporting; you have to report objective facts without manipulating them. Journalists can make mistakes from time to time, but as long as they admit it and make a retraction, it should not be a problem.
Propaganda is intentional manipulation. A propagandist purposefully mixes facts with fantasies. So, it is possible to draw a line. Of course, the atmosphere is so tense that people may denounce a journalist as a propagandist even for occasional use of the term “special operation” instead of “war.” So, we just have to avoid extremes, although it is not that easy, considering how emotional everyone is today.
1[Reference to Stepan Bandera, 1908-1959, a Ukrainian revolutionary and nationalist leader who fought for the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. – Trans.]